Song of the Day #573: ‘Can’t Get There From Here’ – R.E.M.

One of the unintended consequences of my theme weeks is that I’m quick to rule out artists I’ve already covered when pulling songs for the non-theme weeks. So a band like R.E.M., which I covered in a theme week over a year ago, hasn’t been featured on the blog since. And that just ain’t right.

So I’m going to make an effort to revisit some of my favorite bands a song at a time in the non-theme weeks from now on. I’ve now covered enough ground that repetition of artists is unavoidable. And I can think of few better bands than R.E.M. to revisit song-by-song. They have so damn many good ones.

R.E.M. is such an alternative/college/hipster band that it’s easy to forget how deeply rooted they are in the south. Hailing from Athens, Georgia, they were shaped by those southern rhythms (in both the musical and social sense). I’ve often heard Michael Stipe explain a seemingly cryptic lyric by pointing out that it’s a common phrase back home.

‘Losing My Religion’ is a fine example. It was easy to conclude that the phrase, especially coupled with the provocative Bible-themed video, was a spiritual reference. But in fact it’s just a common colloquialism that means you’re at the end of your rope.

In reading up on ‘Can’t Get There From Here,’ one of my favorite songs from R.E.M.’s best album, 1985′s Fables of the Reconstruction, I was surprised to hear that the title phrase is a charmingly southern response one gives when asked directions to someplace with which you’re not familiar.

Maybe that was obvious, but I’d never taken the time to think about it. Knowing what it means now, I find it downright hilarious. Of course the rest of the lyrics make about as much sense as most of what Stipe writes.

When the world is a monster
Bad to swallow you whole
Kick the clay that holds the teeth in
Throw your trolls out the door
If you’re needing inspiration
Philomath is where I go by dawn
Lawyer Jeff he knows the lowdown
He’s mighty bad to visit home

I’ve been there I know the way
(Can’t get there from here)

When your hands are feeling empty
Stick head jumpin’ off the ground, ’round
Tris is sure to shirr the deers out
Brother Ray can sing my song

I’ve been there I know the way
(Can’t get there from here)

Hands down, Calechee bound
Landlocked kiss the ground
Dirt of seven continents going round and round
Go on ahead Mr. Citywide hypnotized, suit and tied
Gentlemen, testify

If your world is a monster
Bad to swallow you whole
Philomath they know the lowdown
Throw your trolls out the door

I’ve been there I know the way
(Can’t get there from here)

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5 thoughts on “Song of the Day #573: ‘Can’t Get There From Here’ – R.E.M.

  1. Dana says:

    Ah, if only I had the ability to find these lyrics on the Internet (or anywhere else) back when I was singing this song with my band The Generics in college. The only line I truly knew to be correct was the title/chorus (and I was familiar with the phrase though i couldn’t tell you how I first knew it–just one of those lines that was said “back in the day”)

    The funny thing is, I had to “memorize” what I thought were the correct lyrics, and I still remember those lyrics (and not the real ones) to this day…They were….

    When the world is a monster
    bout to swallow you whole
    Kick and play and hold the keys and
    Throw your troubles out the door
    If you’re needing inspiration
    Philomath is where I go down
    Lawyer Jeff he knows the lowdown
    He’s mighty glad to visit home

    I’ll get there any other way
    (Can’t get there from here)

    When your hands are feeling empty
    Stick and jumpin’ off the ground, ground
    Twist and shout and show the dear now
    and find a way to sing my song

    I’ll get there any other way
    (Can’t get there from here)

    Hands down, leechee bound
    Landlocked kiss the ground
    Two of seven continents going round and round
    Go on ahead Mr. Citywide hypnotized, suit and tied
    Tell me, justify

    If your world is a monster
    ’bout to swallow you whole
    Philomath is where I go down
    Throw your troubles out the door

    I’ll get there any other way
    (Can’t get there from here)

    Anyway—even though I clearly didn’t know the lyrics—I still have always loved this song. I’m not sure I would agree that Fables is REM’s best album, as I tend to favor Automatic for the People–but, as we have discussed before, I suspect it may get the nod with you (and Amy?) as the entry point album to discovering REM.

  2. Clay says:

    Your lyrics probably make more sense. Nice job remembering them after all these years.

    Fables definitely gets extra points for being my entry point album. I rank Automatic for the People a very close second.

  3. Amy says:

    I think I may have fallen in love with Dana when he was on stage singing those incorrect lyrics :) So thanks R.E.M. for that.

    I can’t not think of college when I hear this song. I so associate my first two years of college with this band, and with Fables, in particular. It is one of my very favorite songs and absolutely one of those time capsule songs you’ve written about in the past.

  4. kd says:

    Please don’t ever use the ridiculous moniker “hipster” when discussing R.E.M. Ever.

    • Amy says:

      Glad to see you came here to associate with other fans of the great R.E.M. and not just to hurl an insult for no apparent reason. Way to honor the band, kd. Way to honor the band.

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